There are dangerous criminals among us. But you’ll be relieved to know that the federal government is on the case, and busy getting them off the streets:

A yearlong sting operation, including aliases, a 5 a.m. surprise inspection and surreptitious purchases from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, culminated in the federal government announcing this week that it has gone to court to stop Rainbow Acres Farm from selling its contraband to willing customers in the Washington area.

The product in question: unpasteurized milk.

It’s a battle that’s been going on behind the scenes for years, with natural foods advocates arguing that raw milk, as it’s also known, is healthier than the pasteurized product, while the Food and Drug Administration says raw milk can carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

But this line from the story jumped out the most:

It is the FDA’s position that raw milk should never be consumed,” said Tamara N. Ward, spokeswoman for the FDA, whose investigators have been looking into Rainbow Acres for months, and who finally last week filed a 10-page complaint in federal court in Pennsylvania seeking an order to stop the farm from shipping across state lines any more raw milk or dairy products made from it.

What????? Raw milk should never be consumed? Kind of makes you wonder how the human race survived, drinking that toxic “udder brew,” for so many millennia. In fact, I poured about a cup and a half of that poison onto my cereal this morning. I’m surprised I feel so healthy and vibrant, and that I haven’t collapsed under E. coli-induced convulsions. Even more remarkably, I’ve been poisoning myself in this way for weeks now — ever since our goats freshened — and in fact feel healthier than ever. No doubt the other ten million raw milk drinkers in this country (and the countless other millions around the world) would agree.

To paraphrase something Ronald Reagan once said about his political opponents: The trouble with our friends at the FDA is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.

And, I would add, that they have so much power to prosecute and crush the small farmers who dare supply a healthy product to the willing consumers who seek it.

End of the Road

Poor Dot.

Despite all our efforts, and the best work of our vet, she never got her appetite back. She was still alive this morning, and I gave her an injection of antibiotic. Drenched her with lots of apple cider vinegar and warm water. Wiped the mucus from her nose. Expressed as much of the junk from her udder as I could. Told her what a good sheep she was. But she was clearly just barely hanging on.

The most interesting part of the last few days was watching the bond re-establish between Dot and her lamb. Although Dot had “officially” rejected the lamb, she grew too tired to drive the lamb away any longer. The two of them slept together, and the lamb tagged along everywhere Dot went. I was providing the nutrition, but Dot was still clearly her mother figure and companion.

Then, just a few minutes ago, Homeschooled Farm Boy was in the barn milking. He came to my office saying that Dot had gone down and wasn’t moving. I ran to the barn, but she was already gone. The saddest part was the little lamb, still standing by her, trying to figure out what was going on.

I just wish I could’ve been there when it happened.

I know we did all we could for her. But it looks like I’m going to be spending this miserable, cold, rainy Good Friday afternoon out in the pasture digging a grave. We’ll have to pick a good spot. Maybe near Scooter and Tabasco, close to the route the sheep use going in and out from their paddock to the pasture.

If there’s any bright spot in all of this, it’s that the lamb is healthy and that Dot will have a final legacy. No matter what her physical conformation to breed norms, we’re keeping her as a breeder. And now we need to name her!

I’m leaning heavily toward “Ellipsis.” Dot. Dot. Dot. Trailing off, into a new beginning.

A Happier Birthday

Things were not looking good for our flock’s matriarch, Dot, last night, on the eve of her twelfth birthday.

I went out to milk her one last time for the evening, hoping to relieve the pressure on the rock-hard left side of her udder. Because I wanted to save some money on milk replacer, I decided to put a pan under her and catch as much milk as I could.

Even though I used lots of hot compresses to loosen up her udder, Dot still hated being handled. I’m glad we had a stanchion to lock her into, because she fought every time I squeezed her udder. Eventually, I decided to call it a night and give her a break. There wasn’t much coming out, it was late, and she seemed like she’d had enough.

I put her back in the pen with her lamb, then took the milk into the house to refrigerate. And then I realized something was seriously wrong with Dot. Instead of milk, her udder had been expressing a watery substance heavily tinged in dirty red blood. I knew it meant some kind of infection, probably mastitis, and that we were now in over our heads. Still, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer had a couple of herbal remedies to try: homeopathic pokeweed tablets, and a jar of pokeweed oil rub.

I gave Dot a tablet, then rubbed and massaged her udder with the oil. She didn’t like it, and I had to block her against the wall, but I knew I had to persist. Gave her another tablet, then rubbed more oil into her. Then did it a third time, and called it a night.

The treatment didn’t clear up the infection, but at least Dot was alive in the morning. She still had no appetite, but wanted to be let out of the separating pen. She led me straight to the main sheep area, so I let her rejoin the flock. Within a few minutes, she’d led her lamb outside to the sunshine.

Given the seriousness of Dot’s infection, I knew she needed more attention than I could provide. We don’t have a large animal vet in the area who does house calls, but there’s a veterinary clinic that will see farm animals case-by-case if they’re brought in. Judging from how confused and amused the young receptionist was when I walked in and explained why I was there, they don’t get many sheep.

The clinic owner, Dr. Patterson, is an older vet, who retired from farm calls several years ago. I waited with Dot in the van until he was able to come see her. I explained what’d been going on, and showed him what I’d milked out of Dot’s udder the night before, and he immediately diagnosed a serious mastitis infection. He gave her an injection of B-complex vitamins, and 10cc of antibiotics. He sent the rest of the bottle home with me, and said she should get another 10cc every day — and that I should continue trying to milk that “junk” out of her udder.

After we’d taken care of that, Dr. Patterson smiled, relaxed, and lit a cigarette. We stood there in the sunshine talking…and for just a moment, the parking lot full of dog and cat owners’ cars seemed to disappear. I could see in his eyes how much he missed seeing and treating livestock, even if he no longer had the energy and wherewithal to put 40,000 miles on a car going to visit farms.

“I think we might just be able to save this old girl,” he said with a grin, rubbing Dot’s back.

I paid him, then drove the old birthday girl back home. She rejoined the rest of the flock, and at first seemed mildly better than in the morning. But she wouldn’t touch the hay I put down, and didn’t even sniff at the grain I offered her. As the rest of the flock barged in and went crazy getting to the hay, the contrast with Dot’s condition couldn’t have been more stark. That’s what Dot’s supposed to be doing, I thought.

I drenched Dot with a couple hundred more CCs of apple cider vinegar and warm water, and included some cod liver oil, before going back to work. An hour or so later, she was out in the sunshine with her lamb — but still not at all interested in food. I helped her to her feet, and led her to the hay, but she wouldn’t even look at it. Or the grain I offered.

She needed liquids and nutrition really badly, so I tried offering her the lamb’s milk bottle. She wouldn’t even suck. But then I got an idea: Dot, you’re getting some food in your stomach one way or the other. I went in, warmed up some goat milk, and returned with it and my drenching syringe. I managed to get 3 full syringes of 50cc each straight down her throat. I also put her against the barn wall and, despite her protestations, expressed as much “junk” out of her udder as I could.

Will she make it? I honestly have no idea. It all depends on whether her appetite returns, and how soon. In the meantime, we’re treasuring every additional day of her reign as matriarch of the flock.

The Leader of the Band is Tired…

…and her eyes are growing old.

Poor Dot.

She turns twelve tomorrow, and it’s not looking like it’s going to be a very happy one. I’m not sure what “twelve” translates into in people years, but it’s a lot. Certainly far beyond the age when anyone should be having a baby and then getting pregnant with twins just two months later. She’s just plain burned out, and I fear we may have entered a tailspin from which we cannot extract her.

Dot has “leader sheep” genetics, and it’s always shown. The flock takes its cue from her, and if we can get her headed in the right direction they will almost always follow her. When the flock is spooked, or nervous, they will all bunch up in a pack behind her. For instance, when we drive them into the barn on shearing day, it’s remarkable the way she stands out in front while the rest of the flock cowers at her tail. Even this morning, when I led her to a private pen, the whole flock began bellowing in protest as she exited the main sheep area.

I’m beginning to suspect that Dot rejected her lamb because her body is telling her she doesn’t have the resources to care for the little one. But that’s led to a problem: her big udder is now completely engorged, and it can’t be comfortable. I’ve begun trying to milk her out, to relieve the pressure, but the udder is like a rock. It’s hard to get anything flowing. I’ve even begun putting the lamb back on her, to see if she’ll have any more success. As a measure of how lethargic Dot has become, she doesn’t even protest or try to butt the lamb away. As the lamb suckles, I stroke Dot’s drooping neck and tell her what a good sheep she is.

I’ve never seen her like this. She won’t rise to her feet without help. Once on her feet, she does little but hang her head. She sniffs at her hay, but doesn’t eat. She won’t even eat grain, and she’s always loved grain. She did nibble down some kelp meal. On our breeder’s advice, I’ve tried giving her some warm milk. She won’t drink it from a pan, so I’ve resorted to feeding her from the bottle before I feed the lamb.

My jeans and sweatshirt are filthy from all the time I’ve spent on my knees, trying to assist her and extract milk. I smell like lanolin and cruddy hay. But I don’t care. I just wish there was more I could do to help.

She has a small fever, but it’s not really bad. The biggest issue right now, beyond the engorged udder, is her appetite. We’re trying to get anything we can “down the hatch” and into her system: kelp meal, dolomite powder, and vitamin C. I put the powders into an old film canister, tip her head back, pry her mouth open, and toss the minerals down. I then “drench” her three or four times with a 50cc syringe filled with apple cider vinegar, warm water, and cod liver oil.

On a farm, animals come and go. You learn quickly not to get attached to them, and mostly we’ve succeeded. But there are exceptions. Big ones. Especially the dogs, and certain of the barn cats; it’s really hard to lose them, because they’re companion animals. The livestock are not companions, but Dot has always been in a category of her own. Not only is she the leader, and the oldest, but she was in our very first group of four sheep. Nearly every adult in our flock can trace its genetics back to her.

It’s going to be very hard to let her go, and I just wish we had more time to get used to the idea. So…I’d best be getting out to the barn and seeing if I can get some more milk out of her udder before bed. And see if we can get her just one more birthday on our farm after this one.

Lamb Concern (Updated)

After the amazement of Dot’s delivery last night, the reality of the situation is setting in — and it’s not looking great.

First off, the male (black) lamb is much smaller than his (white) sister. As noted yesterday, I thought the male had been born dead. But he did manage to get up and walk…and, multiple times, get through the fence into the chicken area. So did the white lamb.

This happened, in large part, because Dot wasn’t very much interested in either lamb. She didn’t call to them, or urge them to nurse, or anything else. It didn’t seem like she was rejecting them (we’ve seen that and know what it looks like), but more like she was just plain tired. She seemed content to simply lay on the floor and chew her cud, while the lambs wandered off. I turned off the lights, hoping that with darkness they’d be less adventure-prone.

Didn’t help. I had to search all over for them this morning, and neither was near Dot. But at least, I thought, they’re strong enough to walk. I had Homeschooled Farm Girl help me move Dot and both twins into the now-empty goat kidding pen. I figured that would help the three of them bond more effectively, especially since we had to be gone for much of the day and couldn’t keep close tabs on them.

I tried to get the little black lamb to nurse. He definitely seemed interested, but once the teat was in his mouth he would just sit there. No suckle. He got a little bit, but then Dot started moving. The bigger lamb was much more active, and much better at suckling. She took quite a bit.

After doing some other chores, and helping to get the kids ready for church, I made another stop in the barn to help get the lambs tanked up. The little black one was just so small and weak, he wouldn’t even suckle. We had to leave, so I didn’t have the chance to do more for him. I will try to get something into him with a dropper this evening, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we lose him.

Big sister, by contrast, again nursed well — at least when I held Dot in place. But Dot was starting to act irritated at both of them, almost like she wanted to reject them. It became a huge struggle to keep Dot from walking away when I put either of them on a teat. I’m hoping they work it out today while we’re gone, but I’m mentally preparing myself to bottle feed them all the way. Especially since, in an email exchange with our breeder, we learned that these old ewes often don’t produce nearly as much milk as they did when younger.

I’ll close this “downer” update with something more amusing: while I was out of the barn this morning, and Dot was busy eating hay, both lambs somehow found their way into the corner of the pen, where a barn cat has been raising three little kittens. When I came back, the mother cat was away, but all five babies were curled up together in a big inter-species pile! One of those priceless scenes I really wish I’d had a camera to capture. The kittens even cried when I took the lambs away. Maybe they’ll be back there when we return home this morning…

Or maybe the barn cat will adopt the little black lamb! That would solve everything. And put us in a record book somewhere.

We got home, to a mixed scene. The black lamb, unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), had expired sometime during the day. The white lamb was doing well, but Dot did seem to have rejected her. I managed to hold Dot steady long enough for the lamb to get a good meal; one advantage of Dot’s advanced age is that she no longer has the strength to fight me and escape the way she used to. Her udder seemed quite large and full, so milk production doesn’t seem to be a problem.

I’m not crazy about going out to hold Dot for nursing several times a day, and we may end up bottle feeding eventually. But for now, the lamb needs the colostrum. And we’ll do whatever’s necessary to help her along.

Totally Unexpected

She turns twelve next week. She had an oddball out-of-season lamb out in the pasture last September. Who ever would’ve thought that Dot, the grande damme of our flock, would’ve come into season just two months later? And then, today, drop these beautiful twins:

The white one is a female, and the black one is a male. At first the black one appeared to be stillborn, but when I tried picking him up he started moving a little. Fortunately, our shearer (Lisa) was here and had just finished shearing the flock. She picked up the little lamb, held him upside down, and then swung him in a manner that cleared his airway. The white one was in much better shape, and was already lifting her head to get up, but Lisa swing her in the same way just to make sure.

When Lisa arrived this afternoon, Dot had just begun going into labor. It was a shock, as we didn’t even know she was pregnant. Her frame is large, and her udder is always big, and she’s been moving stiffly for a while now; I hadn’t been able to put two and two together. But there it was, a “bloody show” hanging out of her rear end.

It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if she’d been miscarrying; I really didn’t expect a mature lamb…let alone two.

One thing Lisa found surprising was how interested Dot was in eating hay during the labor. An ewe’s appetite usually shuts down. But Dot seemed to take the whole thing in stride…which I suppose makes sense, given the number of times she’s done this. But it was still amusing watching the way she ate, totally oblivious to the bloody show hanging out of her rear. And then the ease with which the two lambs slid out, and how nonchalant she seemed. She sniffed the lambs, then went to get more hay, then licked them a little, then went for more hay. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

We put both lambs together, and surrounded them with scraps from Dot’s own fleece. We also closed up the barn, as it’s quite cold and blustery outside.

I’ll check on them again before we go to bed tonight, but I’m not really worried. They’re in good hands (or hooves, as it were).

Best. Sheep. Ever.

Head Count

It was chaos in the sheep area when I went out to close it up for the night. Of the eight lambs we’ve had born so far, six are almost entirely black and a seventh is mostly black. Only one is mostly white. All the black lambs are about the same age and size. The challenge is trying to get an accurate head count while all these little guys are swarming and weaving in and out among the various adults.

Over and over I counted, and I kept coming up with seven. I could’ve sworn we’d had eight lambs born so far, but it’s becoming a blur. Maybe it was only seven. Or was it eight? As I secured the barn, I began composing an update to the previous blog post in my head. It was going to start out, “Okay. So, I can’t add.”

But what if I was wrong about being wrong? What if it really was eight? Why was I only coming up with seven? I stopped, stepped away from the chaos, and calmly reviewed what I knew to be true. Conundrum, Bianca and Maybelle each had a single. Three. Licorice had triplets. Six. And we had twins born today. Eight. Eight. But I can only find seven lambs!

I jogged into the house and retrieved my big pistol grip spotlight. (As noted last summer, this is a truly essential tool when living in the country.) I ran back to the fenced-in area outside the sheep area, and swept the spotlight across the whole thing.

And, within seconds, I spotted him. Number Eight. He was pure black, and had curled up in an old rubber feed bowl for the night. I never would’ve seen him with just the light coming from the barn. As I lit him up, he lifted his head and looked at me, but didn’t make a sound. It took just a few more seconds to run to him, lift him into my arms, and carry him back around to barn’s main entrance (I’d of course already secured the sheep door from the inside).

And that was that. The parable of the Lost Sheep, come to life. Lots to think about and contemplate; even if I might sometimes lose count and get confused from time to time, the Good Shepherd never will. And that Good Shepherd is infinitely more concerned about my welfare and security, and is prepared to go much farther to bring me back to safety, than I ever could for a member of my own little flock.

Seven and Eight

Our seventh and eighth lambs arrived earlier today, courtesy of one of Maybelle’s daughters:

Both are males, and both are doing nicely so far.

I don’t think we ever settled on a name for this mother ewe. By tradition, she needed “belle” as part of her name, but we never came agreement beyond that. It’s her second lambing, and she’s looking to be as prolific as her mother.

Five ewes have delivered, meaning our lambing percentage is at 160% so far this year; 150% is the standard we like to shoot for, so we’re doing well. Two more ewes have yet to deliver, not counting Dot (who turns twelve on April 21st of this year). We’re not counting on the old girl to lamb this year…but who knows?

Lambing Continues

In April on our farm, every morning is like Christmas morning; you’re never quite sure what new gift will be waiting when you open up the barn doors.

Today, Bianca surprised us with a beautiful little ram lamb:

I say “surprised,” because she lambed fairly late last year. (We kept both of those 2010 lambs of hers over the winter, because neither was of butchering size last fall.) And she’s certainly starting to get up there in age. But the new lamb is healthy, and Bianca is going strong. So, power to her.

As noted in the update to yesterday’s post, it turns out we had a set of triplets and a singleton born on Tuesday, rather than two sets of twins.

Maybelle seems to be enjoying her first singleton after eight straight sets of twins. He already has a very beautiful fleece.

Maybelle is quite milky, but the continuous sets of twins have kept us from trying to milk her. Homeschooled Farm Girl is talking about giving it a try this year; it’ll be interesting if we can get her into the stanchion, and get enough milk to make cheese.

Licorice’s triplets (two males, one female) are doing great. I deliberately left the photo below “widely cropped,” to give a better sense of how crazy the scene can get in our barn. Licorice has three lambs. There’s a Buff Orpington hen off to the left. Conundrum and her lamb are in the background, along with a goose. Three more geese are up near Licorice.

This place is a madhouse. But lots and lots of fun. And will get even more fun later today, when the chicks arrive. But that’s a separate post.

Lambs in Full Force (Updated)

It was chilly this morning, but beautiful and sunny. Great morning to go out to the barn and discover that TWO ewes had delivered a total of FOUR lambs overnight, and all were healthy.

Licorice’s lambs were driest, so she apparently had delivered her two males first:

Maybelle, who is usually the first ewe to deliver, slipped to third place this year with this beautiful boy and girl:

Will be interesting to see if we get any more born today. At least one more of the ewes is looking enormous and ready to go any time.
BTW, as an aside, Puddles the Goat Kid has now made a complete transition to the barn. She’s been sleeping there every night, and hasn’t been inside my office in a few days. She even seems to be playing well with the other goat kids. Simply unbelievable the progress she’s made; this is by far one of the most rewarding parts of raising livestock.

UPDATE: Later in the day, the parentage of the lambs became more clear. It turns out that Licorice had in fact had triplets, and Maybelle had a singleton. With the chaos in the sheep area, one of Licorice’s triplets was following Maybelle around. But in the afternoon, they’d sorted themselves out correctly.

This is the first time in her nine lambings that Maybelle has not twinned. It’s also the first time she’s delivered in April rather than March. As Homeschooled Farm Girl pointed out, “She is getting old, Daddy.” For the record: this is Licorice’s sixth lambing, and her third set of triplets.